What is a party faction?
A Faction is a relatively organised group within a political party which competes for power and influence within the party. It exists because:-
- Parties, even quite small parties, may contain a range of different views about what the ideology and policies of the party should be.
- Factions may group around rivals for the leadership. These rivals may also represent different ideological positions in the party
Factions may be mainly within the Parliamentary Party but may also involve the wider membership and even beyond, such as trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party and to key think tanks.
Factions are not necessarily a bad thing, as they may help to keep the party together by letting different groups feel that they can have some impact and allowing a range of ideas to be aired. However, if intense conflict develops between different factions it can weaken the party, for example that between left and right in the Labour Party in the early 1980s, which led to a breakaway group forming a new party, the Social Democrat Party. Other examples are the tensions between pro and anti EU factions in the Conservative Party during the Major premiership and that between Blairite and Brownite factions within Labour at the end of the Blair premiership and into the Brown premiership.
Each of the three main parties has factions:-
Labour has always had a division between left and right groups with the left arguing for a much stronger public control of the economy and more limited defence spending and removing Britain’s nuclear weapons. Battles between factions around Bevin on the left and Gaitskell on the right developed in the late 1950s and between left and right over the record of the Labour Government and whether Labour should have more radical policies in the early 1980s.
Tony Blair moved Labour to the right and rebranded the party as New Labour after he became leader in 1994. Three groups have developed since then. There is still a traditional left though smaller in the last twenty years than in the past, the New Labour Blairites who want to continue Blair’s centrist policies and the Pragmatists, some of whom were supporters of Brown, who are ready to accept more public intervention and are closer to the trade unions than the Blairites. Among the leadership contenders, Jeremy Corbyn represented the left, Liz Kendall New Labour and Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper the Pragmatists.
Conservative factions have been more varied and complicated. There was a bitter battle between those who supported free trade and those who wanted tariff barriers to protect British industry between 1900 and the 1930s. In the 1950s the League of Empire Loyalists and Monday Club wanted to slow down the decolonisation of the Empire that Conservative Governments were pursuing.
As Mrs Thatcher took the party to the right after 1975 and away from the One Nation Conservatism, pursued by earlier Conservative leaders, which was pragmatic and accepted the need for some Government intervention and a conciliatory attitude to the trade unions, the party divided into left (called wets by Thatcher’s supporters) and the right (the drys). After Mrs Thatcher’s Bruges Speech in 1988 which opposed further European intervention, the EU has been the issue which has most divided the Conservative Party. David Cameron’s attempt to modernise the party with greater support for environmentalism and social issues such as gay marriage have also led to divisions. Although free enterprise and Eurosceptic views now dominate in the party there were still, before the general election, factions related to these three divisions such as the Free Enterprise Group which wanted to reduce government intervention further, the 2020 Group and 301 Group who want further modernisation and the 81 Group who wanted to regain powers from the EU. Since the election the Conservatives for Britain Group are ready to argue for a vote to leave the EU in the referendum if Cameron does not negotiate a reduction in EU powers.
The Liberal Democrats have had limited factionalism but in 2004 a group of prominent Lib Dems , including Nick Clegg and David Laws, published the Orange Book which sought to return the party to a more traditional liberalism of the free market and individualism in contrast to Ashdown and Kennedy who, as leaders, had moved the party to the centre-left. This made it easier to reach a coalition agreement with the Conservative in 2010. This shift was resisted by the Social Liberal Forum, set up in 2009, which sought to keep the party to the left of centre with considerable support from the general membership. To a degree Norman Lamb represented the right and Tim Farron the left in the leadership contest.